Originally posted by: Detroit News
An Upper Peninsula teenager accused of posting online threats to attack and kill people at an East Lansing synagogue pleaded guilty to a federal crime Monday amid a rise in antiSemitism nationwide.
Seann Pietila, 19, of Pickford, pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting a threatening communication after being accused of posting threats on social media, including Instagram, that included comments about neo-Nazi ideology, antisemitism and glorifying mass shootings.
He admitted sending multiple Instagram messages about planning to commit a mass shooting and targeting Jewish people, prosecutors said Monday. Pieteila faces up to five years in federal prison and is scheduled to be sentenced March 4 by U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker in federal court in Grand Rapids.
“No one should face violent threats because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or any other status,” U.S. Attorney Mark Totten said in a statement. “At this moment of increased threats across the nation, we renew our commitment to prevent, disrupt, and prosecute illegal acts of hate fueled by antisemitism, Islamophobia, or anti-Arab bias.”
In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop a second threatening charge and a count of threatening to kill or injure by means of fire — a 10-year felony.
Pietila pleaded guilty five months after being indicted in a high-profile case involving violent threats against members of the Jewish community and extremism in Michigan, which has drawn national attention since FBI agents foiled a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020.
When The Detroit News revealed last month that Pietila had reached a deal to plead guilty, Rabbi Amy Bigman of Shaarey Zedek was pleased to learn that Pietila would be pleading guilty.
“I hope he understands the gravity of the situation and what he put us through,” Bigman told The News. “I think people will be pleased to know he will be serving time in prison and hopefully he will get some rehabilitation to help understand what he did.”
A 43-page criminal complaint filed in June chronicled an investigation that started that month with a tip that someone was threatening on Instagram to commit a mass killing.
"I won't be taken alive I'll make sure of that. Remember 'Heil Hitler!,'" Pietila wrote in one post, according to the government. "I just need a camera for streaming and some more magazines. Don't wanna run out of mags and have to reload one."
Investigators learned Pietila had attended Lansing Eastern High School as recently as the 2020-21 school year. That detail led to Pietila’s mother, Brittany Stob. Investigators analyzed her Facebook account and located a photo of Seann Pietila and a cat in the background.
The cat appears to match a feline in another photo posted to the mother’s account. In that photo, a man is wearing a skull mask.
The investigation culminated June 16 with FBI agents arresting Pietila, searching his home 45 miles northeast of the Mackinac Bridge, discovering a cache of weapons, knives, tactical equipment, a red-and-white Nazi flag and makeshift plans for killing members of the Shaarey Zedek congregation on March 15, 2024. That is the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand.
“When free speech crosses a line and becomes a threat of violence against another, the full investigative resources of the FBI will be deployed,” Cheyvoryea Gibson, special agent in charge of the FBI in Michigan, said in a statement.
Antisemitic incidents have been on the rise across the country. The Anti-Defamation League tracked nearly 3,700 incidents of antisemitism last year, an increase of 36 percent.
Pietila is accused of making the threats in early June in Ingham County. Pietila told investigators he had moved to Pickford in June from a home near the Michigan State University campus.
The indictment quotes a June 1 Instagram message between Pietila and an unidentified user that references plans for an attack.
"Specifically…defendant communicated to another individual a desire and plan to kill or injure Jewish people and use a camera to stream his attack over the Internet…," the plea deal reads.
"On June 2…defendant communicated to another individual a desire and plan to kill or injure Jewish people using firearms, knives, machetes, axes, and napalm," the document reads.
In another message, Pietila uses the initials "B.T." in an apparent reference to Brenton Tarrant, who is serving life in prison for killing 51 people and injured 40 others in the Christchurch attacks.
"Don't wanna seem like a copycat attack," he wrote to another Instagram user. "We time it a day after each other. We would surely inspire others to take arms against the Jewish controlled state. I only chose the 15th to mimic b.t's attack lol."
During the search at his home, investigators seized Pietila's phone and searched his Notes app, according to the government. One note referenced Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, listed the date March 15, 2024, and equipment, including Molotov cocktail firebombs, a shotgun and other weapons.
"Oh for sure I'm taking some homemade Napalm to burn some bodies!," he wrote in a June 2 Instagram message.